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Checks & Balances: Internal Limits of the French Executive Branch

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  • 0:02 Checks & Balances in France
  • 0:29 French Executive
  • 1:23 Checks & Balances
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we briefly explore the expansive powers of the French executive branch, as well as the internal checks and balances on the power of the French president.

Checks and Balances in France

Today, even the most powerful people have to answer to someone. CEOs of companies have to answer to the board of directors and investors, and even the most powerful generals often have to explain their actions to their colleagues or to the government whose army they command. In France, the French president and the entire executive branch has an enormous amount of power. But even the French president has checks and balances on his power, many of which will be detailed in this lesson.

French Executive

In order to discuss the limits on the power of the French executive, we should probably establish exactly what powers the president and the executive branch have. The executive branch is composed of three parts: the president, the prime minister, and the Cabinet. Of these three, the president is by far the most powerful; indeed, all of the members of the other two posts are appointed by the president and serve at his or her leisure.

Under French law, the president has an enormous amount of power; after his election, the president appoints many of his colleagues, assumes total control of the French military, and is the only official of the French government allowed to make treaties and declare war. He has internal control of the government, and the president can dissolve the National Assembly, France's representative body, whenever he or she sees fit. The French Constitution of the Fifth Republic even considers him to be the 'guarantor of French sovereignty.'

Checks and Balances

As powerful as the French president is, he is not a dictator. Even though the civil service and the rest of the government are technically his to control, there are checks and balances, or legal and procedural mechanisms which limit the president's power, on his or her power, and the power of the executive exercised by various branches and organizations in the French government.

For example, although the President of France appoints the prime minister, the National Assembly has the right to revoke the president's appointment if they deem him or her unfit to serve as prime minister. This process, or the threat of this process, generally occurs when the president is from a different party than the majority party of the National Assembly.

The president is also limited in his control over legislation. Though the president has to sign each law before it can be enacted, he or she cannot himself introduce legislation into the National Assembly under normal circumstances. This is an important check on the president's power; in theory, the laws of France have to come from a majority of the people (more practically, their representatives), and this check eliminates the possibility of the president ruling by fiat and essentially becoming a dictator.

There are also various departments and governmental organizations that are wholly independent of the executive branch and are specially designated as off-limits to the president. One of these is the media and especially the several state-owned media companies that exist in France. Though the president is often depicted by those state-owned media, the president is strictly forbidden from directing or having any input on the stories and journalism that these companies produce. Other organizations independent of the executive include the Bank of France and boards and commissions that regulate financial regulations, campaign financing, and energy regulations.

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